While I Was Away (by DebbieB)

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Summary: With Marie freshly buried and Ben locked away in his room, the boys are left alone to deal with their own grief.

Rated G  WC 7,760

While I Was Away

The door had been shut and locked from within, for hours, days in fact. The young boy had stood in the hallway, often sitting Indian style or leaning against the thick wooden walls just outside the closed room for as many hours and days. When exhaustion had taken over, his older brother had found the lad curled into a ball on the runner in the hall, sleeping. Adam had gathered the tiny bundle into his arms and carried the sleeping child into his own room and placed his little brother under the covers. He had noticed the tears that lingered on the child’s face, a grim reminder of what had transpired. It was a sign of what the entire household had been forced to face. Marie Cartwright, beloved wife and mother was dead…gone…buried, killed in a freak accident just a little more than a week ago. She had come riding up to the house on a horse that had lost it’s footing and had stumbled, tossing his father’s beautiful young wife into a broken heap upon the hardened soil beneath her. Her long slender neck had been broken, killing her instantly. Ben Cartwright had been unconsolable in his grief. He had taken to his room, shortly after the burial and had remained since, locking himself away from his heartbroken sons, all of whom needed him desperately, especially his youngest, Little Joe, who was the natural born son of their father and beloved step-mother.

Adam sat down on the bed next to his little brother. He watched the facial expressions that came and went across the tear-streaked face. The light chestnut curls that covered the boy’s head lay in damp ringlets. The sight struck a memory cord in the older boy’s heart. Marie had said, just days before her untimely death, that her son was in dire need of a haircut. The haircut, however, had been forgotten when tragedy had struck. Sorrow and grief had replaced more pleasant thoughts with fear and dread. Doom had taken up residence in the home once filled with love and laughter. Adam wondered if their lives would ever be the same again. When Little Joe moaned softly, Adam peered down at the sleeping child, fully aware that their lives had taken a sudden turn in another direction. It wasn’t the first time their lives had traveled down death’s road. Twice before the same grief and unhappiness, the uncertainty of time’s healing powers had visited them. But this time, there was Little Joe to think about. He and Hoss were older and better able to understand that death by any means was only a part of life that lay ahead for all of them. Little Joe was so small, so young…and he needed his father’s presence to hold him, to reassure him and to help him to understand that death is the beginning of life forevermore and that God’s promise to us was that we’d see our loved ones again someday. Little Joe needed to hear his father’s deep, compassionate voice; the boy needed to feel the strength in his father’s arms as Ben held him, comforting him, drying his tears…the lad needed a strong shoulder to cry on, to lean on…but it was as if Ben had turned his back on the very ones he claimed to have loved more than life itself, the ones who needed him most and, though he might not yet realize it, whom he needed almost as much.

“Mama?”

“No Little Joe, its me, Adam.”

“I want Mama,” the wee voice cried.

“I know…but Mama’s…gone Little Joe,” Adam said, almost afraid to say the word…dead…for it was like a hot iron on his tongue, scorching his inner mouth.

Little Joe crawled up onto his brother’s lap, welcoming the warmth and security he found there. Tears built in the emerald pools of green and slid silently down the rosy cheeks.

“No she ain’t…Pa’s talkin’ to her. Honest, Adam…I heard him. Mama’s in their room, with Pa…”

Adam shook his head gently from side to side, startled by the remark, unsure of what his brother was talking about. He was baffled as to why the lad would think that his mother was locked away behind a closed door. Joe had been at the funeral; he had seen his mother laid to rest. He had even tossed a red rose into the opened grave and dropped a tiny fistful of dirt onto the top of the casket.

“No, no,” Adam whispered, pulling the tiny body close to his chest. “Your mama’s not in her room. Don’t you remember, Little Joe…we…buried her a few days ago, up at the lake, at her favorite spot…”

“She is too in there. I told ya, Adam, I dun heard Pa talkin’ to her…why’s he keepin’ her locked up?” the boy inquired, turning sad, tear filled eyes up at his brother, questioningly.

“Joe…she’s not there, honest. Pa’s just…just talking to himself…”

By that time, Little Joe was fully awake. He pushed away Adam’s arms and jumped down onto the floor. His hands were placed firmly on his hips and he gave his brother a hard glare.

“My mama is to in that room…you follow me and I’ll show ya!” he stammered, on the verge of more tears. The boy marched to the door and yanked it opened. When he turned around to see if Adam was following, he sighed deeply. “Ain’t ya’cha comin’, Adam?”

Adam gave out a sigh of his own, fully aware that the truth could only cause more pain and heartache for the curly headed little boy. How he wished that Marie actually were in that room! Slowly and deliberately, Adam pushed his weary body upward and crossed the room. He placed a tender hand down on the boy’s shoulder.

“Alright, Little Joe…let’s go.”

Joe led the way slowly down the hallway towards his father’s bedroom. Adam trailed behind dread building again in his own saddened heart. When both boys reached the door, Little Joe leaned his ear against the cold wood. Inside, he could hear his father mumbling.

“Why’s Pa cryin’, Adam?” Little Joe whispered, looking up into the worried eyes of his brother. Adam felt the catch in his throat and thought how hard it was to swallow.

Before answering, he leaned his own ear against the door. Sure enough, Ben was weeping. Worry creased the younger man’s brow, disfiguring the handsome face. His father was muttering in tones that began lowly and then rose in volume. Grief was like that, one minute you could talk normally, sensibly and then the next you were practically shouting and then the laminating grew in intensity. Adam’s heart broke for his father. How deeply the elder Cartwright’s pain and grief must have been, his son concluded.

“See Adam…listen…Pa’s callin’ Mama’s name…”

‘Marie…oh Marie…why…why…why didn’t you listen to me! That horse was too much for you to handle…oh God…this is all my fault! Marie…I’m so sorry…so very sorry!’

“What’s Pa meanin’ Adam? What was his fault?” Little Joe said, cringing when he heard his father’s voice crackle with the deep sobbing. The sound frightened the little boy and he grabbed Adam around the waist, burying his face in Adam’s mid-section, crying.

“Please Adam…tell Papa to stop makin’ that awful noise…it’s scarin’ me!”

Instantly, Adam gathered his little brother into his arms and hurried down the hall and descended the stairs. Hoss was sitting in the red leather chair and looked up at his brothers. He noted the frazzled look on his older brother’s face and the tears that streamed down his younger brother’s flushed cheeks. He was on his feet instantly.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, placing a large but gentle hand on the lad’s shoulder. “Why’s Joe cryin’ Adam…what’cha do to’em?” he demanded.

“I haven’t done anything to him, you big ox!” Adam retorted as he sat down on the settee, pulling Joe close to his chest and wrapping his strong arms about the tiny, frail body. “Shh…stop crying now, Little Joe. Everything is going to be alright.”

Hoss sat down opposite his brothers on the wide wooden table. His eyes misted as he fought to control his own emotions. “Adam?”

Adam, his eyes clouded with concern, looked up at Hoss. “Joe heard Pa crying…he thinks…Pa has his mama locked in the room and won’t let her out…”

The rotund face scrunched up tightly. “What?” he said in disbelief. “Surely not…”

Adam was rocking slowly back and forth. Little Joe’s eyelids were growing heavy until at last they closed and within minutes the little boy was sleeping.

“He thinks Pa is talking to Marie…”

“Oh no,” Hoss murmured softly, not wanting to wake the boy. “Poor little thing…does Pa know that Joe’s heard’em talkin’, ya reckon?”

Adam shook his head. “Of course not…Pa’s not been out of that room in over a week. Hop Sing said he’s hardly eaten a bite…he grieving Hoss, plain and simple. It’s to be expected,” he said, trying to make his brother understand the process. “He’ll be alright, Hoss…honest. He’s been through this before…it takes time, that’s all.”

Hoss’ expression looked troubled. “I know…but Adam…Little Joe,” he said, pointing to the sleeping lad. “Little Joe needs’em…and…and so do I…we…all of us…we need our Pa,” he cried as tears dripped slowly down his face. Hoss covered his face with his hands. His body was doubled and he rested his elbows on his knees. “I loved her too, Adam,” he wept, glancing up at his brother. “But…I love Pa more…I don’t want’em to stay locked away…it…scares me, Adam…”

Adam stretched out his arm and patted Hoss on the shoulder with his hand. “I know, Hoss. I loved Marie too, but…like you, I love Pa and you and Little Joe most of all. I know we need him, and he needs us too, but ya just gotta understand that this takes time. He’ll come out of there, sooner or later…I…hope,” he muttered, wishing he could believe his own words. “Meanwhile, it’s up to us to take care of Little Joe and to make sure things run as smoothly as possible around here. We have a lot of work to do in the morning, Hoss, we best put this boy to bed and get some sleep ourselves.”

He stood then, his bundle still firmly held in his arms. Little Joe made a soft whimpering sound and snuggled deeper against the warmth of Adam’s chest. Adam glanced down at the sleeping form and sighed deeply, troubled and anxious for the boy’s welfare. “I’ll put Joe in with me tonight…just in case he wakes up and gets scared. I don’t want him to wake up crying for Pa…and…Pa not get to him.”

Hoss stood too, looking up at his older brother. “Adam?”

Adam turned. He had been making his way to the steps. “Yeah?”

“Ya reckon…umm…I mean…umm…can I…”

“Can you what, out with it Hoss?” Adam said, giving the chubby lad a small smile. He was pretty certain that he knew what Hoss was about to ask.

“Can I sleep with you and Little Joe…purty please? I promise, I won’t snore?”

Adam’s grin broadened. “Only if you promise!”

“I promise, I promise…gee, thanks Adam. Say, and if Little Joe wakes up…I’ll help ya with’em…alright?” Hoss said, his tears dried and wiped away on the sleeve of his shirt.

“Sure…I could use a little help…this rascal can be a handful at times.”

Adam made his way up the steps, aware that Hoss trailed behind. In the hall, they both paused for a moment, outside of their father’s bedroom and listened, neither made a sound. It was quiet.

“He’s probably cried himself to sleep. Come on, let’s get to bed,” Adam ordered gently as he ushered Hoss into his room before the sorrowful sounds started up again.
“Little Joe, you have to eat!”

The lad shook his head. “I ain’t hungry…”

Adam groaned softly. Hoss’ blue eyes were fixed on the little boy’s face. “Ya gotta be hungry, Punkin…ya didn’t even eat your supper last night,” he stated.

“Hoss is right, Joe…there’s no way you can’t be hungry. Try, just take a few bites, please?” Adam begged.

The boy shook his head again. “Nope…I ain’t gonna eat.”

Adam exchanged worried glances with Hoss and then turned again to the boy who sat ramrod straight in his chair, arms folded across his chest. He looks defiant, thought Adam.

“You, ain’t gonna eat or you’re not hungry…which is it Little Joe?” Adam demanded.

His tone was unlined with a bit of anger, only because he was worried about his brother’s welfare at this point. Little Joe had tossed and turned all night, often crying out in his sleep, begging for his mama to come to him. His dreams had obviously turned to his father because Joe had also called out to his father to please open the locked door and let his mama out. Adam had spent a sleepless night as well, comforting the sorrowful child. Hoss, who had promised to help if things had gotten worse through the night, slept like a baby, snoring and adding to the restlessness of his two brothers.

“Well?” Adam asked the boy. “Which is it?”

Hoss’ blue eyes widened as he watched the pair.

Little Joe turned to face Adam, glaringly. Adam noted the expression instantly and knew that an argument was in the making. Grief and fear were nearing the surface of the little boy’s emotions and was just about to erupt.

“I dun told ya, I ain’t hungry…and even if I was…why should I eat…nobody cares about me!” he practically shouted. Tears had welled in the green eyes and the boy’s chin quivered slightly as he attempted to hold back the flood that was about to spill over the rims.

“That ain’t so,” Hoss declared. “I care about ya…and so does Adam…ain’t that right, Adam?”

“Absolutely. Look, Little Joe…I know things aren’t the best around here right now, but they’re gonna get better, I promise. Please, just eat…otherwise you’re gonna be sick…what then?” Adam pleaded.

“So what…maybe I’ll just curl up and die…”

“What? Why’d ya say a thing like that?” Hoss fretted, looking with deep concern at his older brother.

“Mama didn’t care about me…Pa don’t care…nobody cares,” the boy said as the tears spilled over.

He lowered his head and began to weep. Instantly, Adam was by his side, grabbing the boy and hauling up into his arms. At first, Little Joe tried to pull away, but the need to be needed and held out weighed the inner anger he had at the other members of his family and he slipped his arms about his brother’s neck, burying his face in the curve of Adam’s neck. Adam felt the old lump in his throat once again as he carried the sobbing boy to the settee and sat down. With tears building in his own eyes, Hoss followed.

At a lost for words, Adam sat in silence, cradling the distraught child in his arms. In spite of his own resolve, Adam felt the tears stinging his eyes. Unaware that he had done so, he looked to the top of the stairs, secretly praying for forgiveness for the sudden surge of anger he felt for his father.

“It ain’t his fault…not really, Adam,” Hoss said in a soft, trembling voice.

Adam’s attention was drawn to his middle brother’s face. “How’d you know what I was thinking?” he asked.

Hoss shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, I just knew…maybe because I was thinkin’ the same thing?” he answered shyly.

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Adam said just as softly. “I realize that Pa’s hurting inside, but why doesn’t he care what he’s doing to the rest of us…especially Little Joe?” He glanced down at his little brother. Joe had closed his eyes and had stuck his thumb in his mouth, something he hadn’t done in a very long time.

“I’m worried about this boy,” Adam said after a moment of silence. “He’s grieving too, not just for his mama but for his pa as well, and I’m at a lost as to how to help him, Hoss…hell, I’m at a loss as to how to help any of us!”

“I know,” the gentle young man answered as he sat down on the far end of the settee.

“Sometimes, I wish I had the guts to just run away…” Adam muttered and then instantly regretted his statement for Little Joe had popped his thumb out of his mouth and was staring deeply into his eyes.

“Ya ain’t gonna leave me too, are ya, Adam?” he sputtered, tears rolling down his face. “What’s gonna happen to me then…if’n ya run away?” he sobbed. Instantly, Little Joe grabbed Adam’s neck, practically crawling up the other boy’s upper body, and began weeping uncontrollably. “Please Adam, don’t ya leave me too…please, I promise, I’ll eat my breakfast…I’ll do my chores, just promise me, ya won’t leave me…please, please………oh….please don’t run away….”

Tears streamed down Adam’s face. His resolve was gone as he cradled the boy tightly and buried his face in the lush curls. “I’m not going to run away…honest Buddy…I’d never do that to you…I promise…please don’t cry anymore…please…I can’t take much more…”

In the doorway of the kitchen, Hop Sing stood in stunned motionlessness, horrified at what he’d just overheard. The scene he’d just witnessed now crushed his already broken spirit. How could his beloved family be breaking away as they were? The threads that had once bound them tightly were beginning to fray and soon, deemed the loyal servant, the threads would surely snap and when that happened, nobody, not even God, feared Hop Sing, could put the pieces back together.
Hop Sing entered the dark room silently. Gloom emitted from every corner as stink on a garbage heap. Quietly, he sat the breakfast tray down on the table and glanced toward the bed. Ben lay motionless, face up, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. Hop Sing glanced up in automatic motion, not seeing anything that could have held one’s attention so intently. With a sigh, he lit the lamp, bringing a glimmer of light into the room.

“You must eat now, Mr. Cart’lite,” Hop Sing said as he crossed the room to stand over the man whom he considered more than just his boss. “I fluff pillows…”

“NO! I’m not hungry…take it away…the smell is nauseating…” grumbled Ben as he turned onto his side, away from the little Chinaman.

Undaunted, Hop Sing reached for one pillow and began to fluff it, almost savagely. “It not stink of food that makes you sick…” He propped the pillow against the headboard and turned to the window. There he grabbed the curtains and flung them opened and then shoved the window opened as well. “It stink of death that sickens you…and other not so good things about you…”

Ben turned his head slightly, glaring fiercely at the smaller man. Hop Sing refrained from flinching. If he were to save the family he loved so deeply, drastic measures needed to be taken.

“What the hell does that mean…and for God’s sake man, close those drapes!” Bellowed Ben with more life in him than Hop Sing had seen in nearly two weeks.

“Man must have sunlight to live and besides, room needs airing…and boss needs nourishment for failing body and…I might add, a bath and a shave. You eat, I bring tub with lots of hot water…”

With no further ado, Hop Sing turned to go, but not before Ben sprang upright in the bed, shouting.

“I TOLD YOU I’M NOT HUNGRY…and I certainly DO NOT need a BATH…”

Pausing and turning at the door, Hop Sing turned around. “You think not…take a good long look in mirror…boss a mess…a smelly, self-pitying mess of a man who thinks of no one other than himself. Think about number three son who cries all day and all night…think of middle son who fares not much better and who moves about as if in a fog! And think of young Adam who has suddenly be thrust into adulthood, fatherhood, master of all your great holdings…you think, Mr. Boss Man of them, and what YOU have done to them…then you see what Hop Sing mean…you a MESS…!!!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “AND YOU DO STINK!!”

The heavy oak door shut with a slam so hard that the windows on the entire second floor rattled. Ben was beyond angry…he was furious. He jumped from the bed and stormed across the room, thrusting the door wide and stomping into the hall.

“YOU’RE FIRED…YOU YELLOW-SKINNED CHINK!!”

On the landing of the steps, Hop Sing had stopped. He covered his mouth with his hand to stifle the bout of giggles that had suddenly erupted. ‘So,’ he thought, ‘Boss still have some fire left in him. That plenty good…now maybe he remember needs of others rather than his own needs!’ With a chuckle, Hop Sing went to ready the tub and bath water.

Ben started to retreat back to his room. As he turned, his eyes opened wide. At the other end of the hall stood his youngest son. Ben was horrified by the boy’s appearance and mystified by the equally horror-struck expression on his son’s face.

“Little Joe…” he muttered softly, taking a single step towards the boy.

“I HATE YOU!” Little Joe screamed. “I WANT MY MAMA…YOU LET HER OUT OF THAT ROOM!” he stormed as he raced to his father and with little fists balled tightly, began beating Ben’s chest. “I WANT MY MAMA…” screamed the lad.

Stunned, Ben could only stand there, ram rod stiff as if he were a statue. The little fists pounded his lower chest and stomach. The boy continued to wail at the top of his lungs. Adam all of a sudden appeared in the hall, grabbing Joe and pulling him away from his father. His eyes dark and indignant could only glare at his father. No words were needed; the elder Cartwright read all there was to say in that one look of total hostility. Without a word, Adam retraced his steps down the back stairs carrying Joe in his arms. Joe’s wailing echoed through the house. Ben was speechless, unprepared for the encounter, confused as to why the boy suddenly hated him and more uncertain about the audacious look in his oldest son’s hazel eyes. Anger that had slowly been consuming him for days, now seeped from every pore in his body. He was furious as he stormed back to his room, slamming the door with a vengeance that equaled Hop Sing’s…and then he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror.

Slowly, as if he stared at stranger, he moved to the dresser and peered deeper into the looking glass. His eyes met the reflection looking back at him. He watched as the unkempt stranger touched his cheek, brushing his fingers against the bristles of his unshaven face. Ben moved even closer in to get a better look. His eyes never wavered from the image before him.

“Dear God in Heaven…what’s become of me?” he whispered to the scruffy old man in the mirror.

The door opened without notice. Ben spun around to see who had dared to enter without his permission. He wasn’t expecting the man who stood before him. “What do you want?” he growled.

Doctor Paul Martin, the family physician and long time friend of the Cartwrights, moved deeper into the room, setting his black satchel on the table next to the bed. He stood watching his friend, noting how Ben’s eyes kept darting back to the mirror and how the expressions changed rapidly on his friend’s face.

“I’m glad to see you’re up and about,” Paul stated. “Have you eaten anything?” he asked, spying the tray on the opposite table. Nonchalantly he raised the lid and peeked at the contents beneath.

“No…and I’m not going to…I asked you what you wanted?” Ben stormed, returning to the bed and settling himself under the covers.

Paul made a grunting sound deep in his throat, ignoring the tone of Ben’s voice. Casually, he sat down in the lone chair and made himself comfortable, crossing his legs and folding his arms across his chest.

“I just stopped by to see how you were doing…and…”

“I’m fine, great…just super…now go…I don’t need you here bothering me with stupid questions,” Ben grumbled irritably.

“And…I wanted to stop in to visit with Little Joe…”

Ben’s attention turned directly to the doctor.

“Little Joe?”

“That’s right. I suppose, since you’ve had yourself barricaded in this room, you’ve failed to notice how poorly the boy is looking. He’s not eating…not sleeping…and when he does sleep, Adam says he whimpers all night or wakes up from nightmares…”

Ben lowered his head. “I…no, I didn’t know that. No one bothered to tell me…”

Paul’s snicker was not because he thought the statement was funny, but just the opposite.

“It’s rather hard to tell someone something when that person refuses to listen to something so important…especially when he doesn’t really want too, or doesn’t care too….”

“How dare you…my sons are very important to me…you of all people should know that,” Ben retorted.

“I used to think they were important to you…but now…well, to be honest, with the way you’ve been acting lately, I’m not so sure they are…”

“Why you…” Ben stammered. “Get out…right now, get out of my house and don’t you ever come back…do you HEAR ME?” he shouted at the top of his voice.

The patient physician remained in his seat, sadly shaking his head from side to side.

“You know Ben, when Marie first died…I felt sorry for you. But not anymore.” He rose then, pausing to pick up his satchel. “No…now all I feel for you is pity. Pity because I thought you were a stronger man that…this…” he pointed at Ben lying in the bed like an invalid. “You have sons that need their father…yet you lie up here wallowing in your own grief instead of helping them cope with theirs. You believe you’re the only one hurting, yet I’ve seen what Marie’s death has done to those boys…and how you’re locking yourself away, waiting to die. Especially Little Joe…did you even know that he’s spent hours sitting just outside your bedroom door…did you know that he’s heard you talking to yourself, believing you were talking to his mother…and that he thinks…believes that you’ve got her locked in here with you and that you won’t let him in because you want Marie all to yourself…” Paul reached for the doorknob.

“Pity…that’s all I feel for you…you’re a disgrace to your sons…and to yourself. Look at you…get up and take another good long look in the mirror for God’s sake…see what you’ve become…and then look out the window…and see that you’ve still got plenty to live for…that is, if you really care about them…”

Paul shut the door softly when he left, though he felt like slamming it with all the strength he could muster. He hated himself for speaking so to his best friend, but he knew that something had to jar the man to his senses. Hop Sing had told him all that had been going on in the house and the things he’d heard troubled his heart greatly. He was concerned for the boys, especially the boy…afraid that Little Joe would be scarred for life. No, he hadn’t been harsh enough…he should have hauled Ben’s butt up out of that bed himself and dragged him to the window. Ben needed to see his sons…he needed to know that life goes on…that death is not the end of tomorrow, but the beginning of forever. Paul wanted Ben to see that life was still young and strong and very much alive, in his sons. That’s what Paul wanted Ben to see.

In the yard, he stopped to speak with the boys. Casting an eye to the upstairs window, he caught a glimpse of his friend standing in the shadows of the thick drapes. So, he mused, his words had struck a cord…good, he only hoped that they would suffice.

“I said some pretty hard things to him, Adam.” He had waited until Hoss had taken Little Joe into the barn to see the new kittens that had been born the night before. “Rude things actually.”

“I’d like to say a few things to him myself…but…I just can’t bring myself to say them outright. I feel like a heel for even thinking them…but it’s because of Joe. You know Doc…I…love my father…but…he’s hurting that boy…why doesn’t he realize that?”

“Grief is a hard thing to master, Adam. And your father has had so much of it in his lifetime…more than most men have had to endure. And each time he snaps back…somehow, by the grace of God, he finds himself just in the nix of time…and he will again…I have that much faith in the man…and in God that He will not let this behavior go on much longer. Something will happen, son, that will cause Ben to snap out of his depression.”

“I hope so. I don’t know how much longer I can go on handling all this…I mean…Hoss helps but he’s only twelve. But what with keeping him in school, and keeping Little Joe satisfied…and running this ranch. Most days the boy rides out with me. It’s like he nearly panics if I get out of his sight for more than a moment or two…”

“I understand Adam, honestly. And I want you to know how very proud I am of you for taking on the responsibilities that you have. And your father will be proud as well, soon I hope.” Paul placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “You just keep doing what you’re doing and everything will be alright. If you need me for anything…I mean anything, Adam…even if it’s just to talk…you know where to find me, or send word and I’ll be here as quickly as I can be…understand?”

“Yes sir…and…thanks Doc. It…helps to talk,” Adam admitted shyly.

“ADAM…ADAM…come look,” Little Joe shouted from the doorway of the barn. “Sassy had six kittens!!” Little Joe disappeared to the back of the barn.

Paul and Adam laughed lightly. “It’s good to see you smiling again, young man. Now go see those kitties…and save one for me…I need a good mouser. I’ll be back out in a day or two…”

“Thanks again for dropping by…” Adam said as the doctor climbed into his buggy.

“ADAM…HURRY IT UP!!”

“Guess I’d better get going,” laughed the doctor.

“Me too…take care,” he called as the doctor drove away. When Adam turned, he caught a movement in the upstairs window. ‘Please Pa…hurry and get better…they need you…Joe, Hoss and…I need you too.’
The door opened and Hop Sing entered the room, lugging the heavy tub along with him. He sat it in the middle of the room. “Water be hot soon,” he said, never looking up at Ben.

Ben had stood at the window for several long minutes after the doctor had gone, waiting for the boys to reappear from the barn. He had been troubled by the events of the morning…and with all that had been said to him. Almost ashamed of himself, he turned to the loyal servant.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” he called before the Chinaman left.

Hop Sing stopped in the doorway, unsure of what to say. Ben looked haggard and worn, sickly almost. His skin was pale and taunt…his hands shook slightly. Hop Sing’s heart broke at the sight of what Ben had let himself become.

“I’m…afraid…I’ve let…my breakfast get cold. I won’t ask for you to cook more…but…if you don’t mind…umm…I could do with a cup of hot coffee.”

Hop Sing’s expression changed and he gave his boss a tiny smile. “I get you coffee…”

“Strong, Hop Sing…very, very strong…please.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Cart’lite…”

As he turned to go, Ben stopped him again. “Hop Sing?”

“Yes?”

“I…” Ben gulped. “I was way out of line a little while ago…I didn’t mean…what I said…I’m…sorry…please, forgive me?”

“May I speak freely, Mr. Cart’lite?”

The servant had the full attention of the master. “Of course you may…and this time…I shall listen,” Ben said, smiling slightly.

“Thank you. I only wish to say to you…that I understand your sorrow. I too have lost someone I loved…we all loved her, Sir. But it is in times such as these that people need people and friends need friends. And we all need love, for a full life depends, not on vast riches or great acclaim, not on success or on worldly fame. But just in knowing that someone cares and holds us close in their prayers and thoughts. For only the knowledge that we’re understood makes everyday living feel wonderful. And we rob ourselves of life’s greatest need when we lock up our hearts and fail to heed the outstretched hand reaching to find a kindred spirit whose heart and mind are just as lonely and longing to somehow share our joys and sorrows and to make us aware that life’s completeness and richness depends on the things we share with our loved ones and friends. Sons need their fathers…and fathers need their sons…and in times of sorrow…only the love that binds them together can lead them on to brighter tomorrows.”

Hop Sing took a deep breath. “I go fetch water now…you take bath, yes?”

Ben swallowed the lump that had sprouted in the back of his throat. “Yes…I take bath…”

“Good, it about time,” Hop Sing muttered under his breath as he shut the door.

Ben heard laughter down below and returned to the window. Outside, his sons were laughing. Hoss was chasing Little Joe around the yard. The boy’s giggles were high-pitched and shrill. When Hoss caught his little brother, he held him in a bear hug, spinning him around in a circle and causing Joe to squeal even louder. Adam joined them then and together Hoss and Adam pinned Joe to the ground, tickling him mercilessly. Ben laughed, surprised to hear the sound that he thought he’d never make again. The realization that life does go on…had finally struck home.

“Dear God…forgive me for what I’ve put them through…and please, give them grace to forgive me…”

At that very moment, Little Joe looked up at the window. It seemed like forever that their eyes remained locked. Ben wasn’t even sure that the boy could actually see him, but then Little Joe stopped laughing. Ben could have sworn that he’d seen tears begin to roll down the dirt stained cheeks. Then, before his brothers were even aware of what was happening, Little Joe took off in a run, disappearing behind the barn.

In a panic, Ben left the room, the bath all but forgotten. He cared not that he stank, that his face was covered in course whiskers. He cared only that somehow, without meaning too, he had frightened the child and sent him running…away and he had to find the boy and explain as best he could…he had to make Little Joe understand that he…loved him…deeply, so very deeply.

By the time he reached the yard, Adam and Hoss were rushing off in search of the boy. They spied their father in all his disarray.

“Where are you going?” Adam demanded in a rather disrespectful tone of voice.

“I’m going after my son…he saw me watching him from the window…and he…ran away…”

“I’ll get him,” Adam snapped. “Why don’t you just go back to bed?”

Ben’s expression suddenly changed. He grew angry, but he held it in check. He deserved the ill-mannered tone in which his son spoke to him. He blamed no one other than himself for driving a wedge between his boys and himself.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll…”

“I do mind…I told you, I’ll find him…we…don’t need…you…as you so obviously don’t need us…”

“ADAM…Pa…he didn’t mean that…honest, he’s just been so worried about Little Joe…” stammered Hoss.

Adam had gone, leaving his father alone in the yard with his middle son. Ben’s lips were drawn tight, in a firm straight line. “Don’t fret, Hoss. I know he didn’t really mean it…at least I hope he didn’t.”

“He didn’t Pa…honest he didn’t…”

“It’s okay, son…really…I know I haven’t been much of a father to…any of you…the last several days. It’s just that I’ve been so…”

“We know Pa…and we understand…least ways, me and Adam understand…I ain’t so sure about Little Joe. He’s been havin’ a pretty rough time of it since…since…his mama…”

“Died?”

Hoss gulped. “Yes sir…that’s what I meant.”

“And that’s my fault. I shouldn’t have locked myself away like that…I should have been here for you boys…I’ll regret that for the rest of my life…I’m…ashamed of myself.”

“Aw Pa…don’t you go frettin’ about that now. We need to find Little Joe…so’s ya can talk to’em and get’em to understand that…well, people grieve differently…and…well, ya was just grievin’ the only way ya knew how…”

Ben placed a loving hand down on the boy’s shoulder and pulled the husky lad to him in a tight hug. “You amaze me, Hoss…you truly do…thank you…for understanding…I wish your older brother was just a bit more understanding as you seem to be.”

“Aw…that’s okay, Pa…and Adam…well, you know how he is…him being older and thinkin’ he’s always in charge and responsible for everything me and Joe does…he’s been like a pa to both of us while ya was…umm…”

“Locked away in my room?” Ben said with a serious expression. How could he have been so blinded to the needs of his boys?

“Yes sir…”

“I’m sorry, Hoss…I hope you believe that…and I promise…from now on, things will be different around here…”

“I hope so, Pa…for all our sakes, but especially for Little Joe…he needs you so.”

“I give you my word son…now, do you have any idea where that little rascal might have taken off too?”

“Yep…” Hoss answered hesitantly. “But, Pa…ya might not want to go up there…” he cautioned.

“The lake?”

“Yes sir. He’s been sneakin’ off up there plum near everyday since…well, everyday nearly.”

“Hoss…you stay here. Tell Hop Sing to keep the water hot…I’ll be back shortly.”

“Keep the water hot?” the boy asked, puzzled.

Ben was already halfway around the corner of the barn. “He’ll know what you mean…”

Hoss walked slowly towards the house muttering under his breath. “I sure hope he does, cause I ain’t got a clue…”
By the time that Ben had reached the lake, he was tired, so very tired. Having been immobile for so long had caused his strength to wane. He stopped beside a huge boulder and rested his back against the cool stone. A short ways off, he could hear Adam and Joe speaking in low tones. He crept closer.

“I don’t wanna go back, Adam…please don’t make me. I wanna stay here…with mama,” Little Joe was pleading.

Adam had found his little brother sitting beside the soft mound of dirt that covered his mother’s grave. He had sat down next to the child and had taken Joe into his arms, settling the smaller boy on his lap.

“You can’t stay here, Sport…it’s going to get dark soon, and it’s going to get cold. You don’t want to get sick, do you? Besides, your mama wouldn’t want you out after dark like this.”

“Mama won’t mind…she might want company…and I don’t care if I get sick,” the lad grumbled.

“Well I care…and Hoss would care…and Hop Sing…”

“What about Pa?” Little Joe asked, looking up with huge sad eyes. “He won’t care will he…he don’t care about nuthin’ but…himself…”

Ben felt the well of tears that threatened to blind him. Adam swallowed the knot that had developed in his throat.

“Of course Pa would care…”

“He don’t act like he does…not like he used to…way back when…Mama was alive…oh Adam, why’d she have to die…why…why…I miss her so much!” wailed Little Joe.

“I don’t know Little Joe…I suppose because it was her time to die. Remember, Pa used to tell us that ‘to everything there was a season, a time to be born and a time to die’…and that death was part of living…we’re all gonna die someday, Joe…and then we’ll all be together again. Pa said that was God’s promise…”

Little Joe looked up at his brother. “I don’t wanna die, Adam…it scares me.”

“Well, I don’t think you have to worry about it for a very long, long time…and it’s okay to be afraid…the thought sort of scares me too.”

“Really?”

“Yes really,” smiled Adam.

“What about Pa…I don’t wanna go back there…Pa…well, he sort of scares me…” Little Joe whimpered. “He ain’t happy no more…and…and he stopped…loving us…didn’t he, Adam?”

“No…that’s not true! I’d never stop loving you Little Joe, or…you Adam, or Hoss either.”

Both boys looked up to see their father standing before them. Adam pulled Little Joe up with him as they both stood. Neither spoke, only Little Joe clung tightly to his brother, his little arms wrapped securely about Adam’s leg. Adam’s hand rested reassuringly on his brother’s shoulder.

Ben moved closer until the only thing between he and his sons was his wife’s grave.

“I know I’ve not been much of a father to any of you…I’ve grieved for your mother, Little Joe…I’ve grieved for myself…in a very selfish way and I’ve left the three of you to find your own way through your grief. I’m sorry for that, I should have taken into consideration the pain and hurt and the doubts and fears that each of you might have, especially you Little Joe. I’ll make no excuses for my actions other than to say…I blamed myself for Marie’s death.”

He noted the strange expression that washed over his elder son’s face and continued.

“I asked Marie not to take the gelding…he was too spirited, but she talked me into letting her…she could be very persuasive at times. So, I relented…then when I saw that horse stumble and your mother fall…well, I could think of nothing other than how I could have prevented her death…I was consumed with more than grief…I was consumed with guilt and self-hatred…”

“It wasn’t your fault, Pa…” Adam said, his tone near normal other than the slight tremble it beheld.

“I know that now, son…Little Joe…I’m sorry for ignoring you…I’m sorry that you thought I had your mama locked up in my room…and that scared you. I was angry…with myself for letting this horrible thing happen…what you heard was me…beseeching your mother to forgive me. I wasn’t sure that I could ever forgive myself or that you and Adam and Hoss could ever forgive me. I too was afraid, Little Joe…afraid so much so that I might have lost my entire family, that I was too scared to come out of that room and face the three of you…and to face life without my wife and my sons…”

Ben had stepped across the mound of dirt and was now kneeling down so that he could be eye level to his youngest son.

“I love you Little Joe…you are so much a part of my love I held for your mother…you’re a part of me and I of you…do you reckon you could ever find it in your heart to forgive me someday?” Ben pleaded with the boy.

Adam’s fingers tightened on the boy’s shoulder, causing Little Joe to turn his head upward and to look into his eyes. Adam smiled down at the boy and nodded his head ever so slightly. Little Joe returned the gesture and then turning back to his father, whose own eyes had suddenly misted, flung himself into his father’s waiting arms.

Ben immediately embraced the small boy, hugging his son tightly. “I’m so sorry, Little Joe…”

“I love ya Papa…”

“And I love you!”

Ben rose, bringing the boy up in his arms with him. He faced Adam. “And I love you, Adam…and I thank you for all you’ve done for your brothers…while I…was away.”

“I love you too, Pa…and…I’m glad you’re back…”

The embrace would be something that Ben would remember for the rest of his life. It was a sigma of the new life and new relationship that had suddenly developed between himself and his oldest son. A new respect had sprung forth…giving each the chance to see the other in a more mature, manlike manner. Adam was no longer just the eldest son but a man at last…a man that his father’s admiration for would continue to grow for years thereafter.

“Well…I think we should all go home now…Hoss is waiting for us and I know he’s anxious to hear that things are going to be different, very different from now on,” Ben said, placing Joe on his feet.

As they turned to go, Little Joe reached for his father’s hand. When Ben looked down at the boy and smiled, Joe returned the smile.

“Pa…you sure do smell funny…and have ya looked in the mirror lately…you surely could do with a shave.”

Ben stopped, tossing his head backwards and laughed loudly. “Oh Little Joe…yes I have looked in the mirror…and I didn’t like what I saw any more than what you like looking at me right this minute. And that’s another promise I aim on keeping…the minute we get home, I’m taking a bath and I’m shaving…I didn’t like that man in the mirror…he was a stranger…but he’s gonna be gone soon, I promise!”

Little Joe wasn’t too sure what his father meant, but he commented just the same.

“Good, cause I like my old papa best!”

Ben laughed again.

“So do I, Little Joe, so do I!”

“I guess that makes three of us then,” Adam added. “Four, if you count Hoss…come on, let’s hurry…” he said then ran on ahead before his father or brother could see the tears that had welled in his eyes yet again. He was so glad…so very happy to have his father back…back amongst the living rather than hidden away behind a locked door trying to call back the dead. He’d been missing Marie…but he had missed his father so much more…so much so that he’d never be able to admit to anyone just how hollow he had begun to feel…

‘Welcome back, Pa…’ he said to himself.

The End

 

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